If I had to sum up a significant portion of the writing I do on videogames, I would offer the following formulation as a précis: The establishment of character in videogames isn’t achieved solely through writing. It is also established through user interface design.
Sometimes, something as simple as how a cursor behaves can tell us a lot about a character. Be forewarned—the breezy tour through the issue below contains significant spoilers for Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016).
Don’t be reticle-less
(Oh, god, that was terrible I’m sorry. I’ll do penance.)
One major focus of my dissertation was the matter of avatar effectivities: how do we know what the physical capabilities of our avatar are? How do they move? How high can they jump, and how low can they crouch? How can they act within the world? These issues are often lumped under the term “affordances” in game an UI design, but I favor a more robust application of Gibsonian ecological psychology to games, one that can account for the differences between what an environment affords and what a player-character effects.
One area that I gave some special attention to in my dissertation was the matter of tool use. The way in which tools can alter our body schema has been something neurologists have grappled with for a couple decades now.[i] Ecological psychologists, too, have put together some wonderfully wacky studies to test how our perception of the world changes when our bodily capabilities are altered by various tools and prostheses. One of my favorite of these involves having participants to guess as to whether they can sit on an unusually high stool while they’re wearing 10cm-tall blocks strapped to their feet.[ii]
Videogame player-characters aren’t usually wearing 10cm blocks on their feet, but they often do have other sorts of tools and prostheses that grant them unusual capabilities. For instance: grappling hooks. Grappling hooks can be enormously fun to play with, but they also introduce a design problem: how do you effectively communicate to players what the range of their grappling hook is? How do you differentiate things that are grapplable, versus non-grapplable? How do you, in short, let them know what their capabilities are?
The answer usually involves the game’s heads-up display, or HUD. Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady, 2011) festoons its titular environment with big white and green circles whenever the Batman gets near enough to an architectural features to be able to grapple onto it:
Just Cause 2 (Avalanche Studios, 2010), on the other hand, is subtler. (And, yes, that’s just about the only time you’re ever going to hear the words “Just Cause 2” and the word “subtle” in the same sentence.) In place of Batman‘s flashy HUD elements, it offers merely a simple reticle, which changes shape if the player is directly pointing at something in grapple range:
This reticle is handy for players, but it’s also more than just that: we could say that, in effect, it is part of the character of Rico Rodriguez, the game’s protagonist. Rico Rodriguez and his grappling hook are utterly inseparable. (He probably showers and sleeps with it on, using it to grab soap and pull the covers up and whatnot.) We can assume, then, that Rico possesses intimate expertise with his grappling hook’s range. The reticle the game offers players serves to share Rico’s specialized, professional knowledge about his enhanced movement capabilities.
What did you know, and when did you know it?
I have an article coming out soon where I talk about some changes in player behavior that took hold after a particular update in Minecraft‘s beta. I don’t engage into this sort of software-studies research on patches and the fluidity of software too terribly often in my writing, but it is occasionally worth delving into.
Take, for instance, this instance: On September 24, 2013, developers Red Barrels released an update for their survival horror game Outlast. Along with doing things like adding Polish-language support, the patch notes mention that the developers “added options to disable motion blur and hide interaction prompts.”
The “hide interaction prompts” capability came in the form of a brand-new check box in the game’s settings menu, “show prompts.” It’s checked by default, but could now be unchecked.
Why would we care about this at all? Well, there’s one specific reason that I do. One of the interaction prompts in question is the prompt “press and hold (LEFT MOUSE BUTTON) to open” that appears when players hover their targeting reticle over a door. Except … not all doors.
Outlast, like horror franchise Silent Hill before it, is chock full of locked doors. Part of the trick of its level design is to turn a mental hospital that by all rights should have a relatively straightforward layout into a twisty, turny maze, filled with dead ends and plenty of opportunities to get trapped. Locked, broken, and barricaded doors serve a crucial purpose in this transformation.
But here’s the thing: if players with interaction prompts enabled hover their reticle over a locked door, they don’t receive the “press to open door” prompt. The end result is the endowing of their player character with an odd sort of precognition: the very specific (and dubiously useful) ability to know if a door is locked or not just by looking at it.
Here’s one minute of what this looks like in action. In this video, I’m approaching each locked door and clicking on it just to confirm that it’s locked, but there’s really no reason to. If you’re playing with the prompts on, you always know what doors are locked and which doors are unlocked from a few feet away, so there’s no need to ever even see that “fruitlessly jiggling the handle” animation.
And, just for contrast, here’s a minute of what it looks like when the prompts are turned off, thereby taking away your player-character’s door-handle related clairvoyance:
Now, I’ve chosen to demonstrate this difference in a calm area of the game, for the sake of clarity. But where this really makes a difference is in the game’s numerous chase sequences. When you’ve got something nasty on your tail, the difference between seeing that a door is locked from a few feet ahead and losing precious seconds in a futile handle-jiggling animation can be a matter of life and death. Death-by-jiggling-animation is an inglorious way to go, but for some players it is undoubtedly a worthy price of admission for the ability to role-play more deeply, by ditching the interface’s artificially grafted-on cognisance.
Red Barrels’ walking back on interaction prompts shows that they were aware of the nontrivial role that text descriptions tethered to the player’s reticle position played in issues of immersion (cue scare quotes), character alignment, and role-play. Refining this is a tricky business, and the developers’ check box solution might be seen as a partial admission of failure, acknowledging that they couldn’t come up with a system that properly balanced the needs of gameplay and the needs of game fiction. For an example of a game that got this right from the get-go, we can take a peek at Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016).
Firewatch is quite fond of using its reticle as a labeling device. When out and about in the woods, pointing this tiny cursor at things will frequently result in them being named in clean, all-caps, san serif text centered below the reticle.
At certain moments in the game, these text identifications can change. Sometimes, this is in response to player choices. Delilah, the supervisor of our player-character Henry, will occasionally ask for Henry’s input when naming something in the environment—a newly-appeared fire, for instance, or a gulch that Henry just tumbled down—and the game’s UI will respond appropriately, adopting the new name when the player points their reticle at the thing in question.
Other times, these shifts in labeling are precipiated by Henry’s psychology. At one point in the game, Henry raids a geological survey site called Wapati Station. Someone in the park has been using its equipment to monitor their communications, so both Henry and Delilah are understandably paranoid as Henry investigates the camp and reports what he sees.
Henry and Delilah’s paranoia in this scene is mutually-reinforcing and ultimately counterproductive, leading them (and the player) into a school of red herrings. The game’s writers want us to get tripped up on these red herrings, too, not just the characters, and so the paranoia isn’t just confined to Delilah and Henry’s ramblings on the soundtrack: it also leaks out into the game’s UI. When Henry reports what he thinks is an earthquake monitor on the station’s table, describing its needle and readouts, she counters that it might be a lie detector. In response, the previously self-assured UI text begins to second-guess itself, changing from “EARTHQUAKE MONITOR” to the more panicked “LIE DETECTOR?”
This type of re-labeling of the object the player’s reticle is settled on reappears in the game’s emotional climax. After the visit to Wapati Station and some subsequent tricks played upon them by the unseen spy, Henry and Delilah become convinced that there are answers to what is going on in the system of caves beneath one of the park’s mountains. Henry gets his hands on some climbing gear, and goes spelunking. At the cave’s bottom, he sees this:
“FIGURE,” the text carefully announces when the player’s reticle first alights on the crumpled body in the distance. But it doesn’t look like just a “figure”—it looks like a corpse. Henry seems to share our attitude. “Ahh … shit,” he exclaims on the soundtrack, as the neutral designation “FIGURE” disappears from the screen.
If the player/Henry moves a few paces closer, the a new label appears: “BODY.”
These labels aren’t just neutral descriptions. They have a personality. We can, in this moment, detect a definite caution to them. Even when the description simply read “FIGURE,” all signs pointed to this “figure” being a corpse. It is unmoving, its limbs are bony, it is twisted into a position that no alive human would be able to maintain without yelling in pain. And yet we get the sense that Henry isn’t yet willing to admit to himself that he’s found a body. Even as we hear his heart sinking as we here the “ahh shit” on the soundtrack, we can tell that he’s still in denial, holding out cautious hope that he might be wrong … until he takes those few steps forward, and there’s no more denying it. This is a BODY.
And, what’s more we know that Henry already likely knows whose body this is. It is, most likely, the body of Brian Goodwin, a kid who Delilah was friends with who disappeared several summers ago. Delilah has been cheerfully unquestioning in her insistence that Brian just up and left when his father found new employment, but certain things Henry has seen over the course of the game give the player reason to question this optimistic viewpoint. Still, though, again, the label doesn’t immediately change. Henry is not jumping to conclusions just yet. He won’t make his final assessment until the player moves him closer.
And, there is is, once we are directly on top of the body:
Firewatch‘s script and voice acting are excellent. If it wasn’t for Oxenfree (Night School Studios, 2016) giving it a run for its money, I’d say they were easily the best in videogame history. (2016 was such a marvelous year for folks who like snappy dialogue delivered well in their games!) But it’s important to note that these things aren’t the only thing that Firewatch gets right when it comes to character-creation. Its use of UI as a storytelling tool is also masterful.
[i]. One of the most well-known of these neuroscientific studies is Berti, Anna and Francesca Frassinetti, “When Far Becomes Near: Remapping of Space by Tool Use,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12, no. 3 (2000): 415–420.
[i]. Mark, Leonard S., et al., “What an Actor Must Do in Order to Perceive the Affordance for Sitting,” Ecological Psychology 2, no. 4 (1990): 330–344.